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Our City: How Generation X Saved American Soccer

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Between the Baby Boom embrace of the beautiful game and the Millennial wave of popularity soccer is riding now, Generation X was still kicking the ball around and hoping.

New York City FC v Orlando City SC Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

Reading this Vanity Fair article this week about Generation X has had me thinking a lot about, well, generations. Of course, that thinking wandered into how American generations have impacted soccer.

When we talk about American soccer generationally, there are two massive truths. First, soccer in the United States arrived in unison with Baby Boom desires to buck the status quo. Baby Boomers, born in the wake of World War II between 1946 and 1964, have been one of America’s largest and most disruptive generations.

They were also America’s most affluent generation. They had both the spare change and the desire to try something different with their entertainment dollar, which meant in the 1970s and early 1980s, taking in an NASL soccer game. Fans of this generation did not switch allegiances from traditional sports like American football, baseball, hockey, or basketball. Instead, with extra money, extra leisure time, and clever planning by NASL officials to not compete directly with American football, they added soccer to the American sports landscape — or to clarify, the middle-class white sports landscape.

Soccer has of course been played for over 100 years in the United States in major cities with large immigrant populations. The NASL took the game, brought in the stars, and marketed it in a way that would appeal to mass American society. And they did it well, for a while. The fall of the NASL has been well documented, so I won’t go into the gory details, but the short version is the league over-expanded and overspent itself into the red. League officials anticipated the growth of American soccer, they just may have been a bit too eager to cash in.

The second generational group credited most with raising the American soccer profile is Millennials. Those who make up this generation, born between 1981 and 1997, have been seen as disrupters themselves, and credited with killing everything from boring middle-America chain restaurants to home ownership (due to their love of avocado toast, evidently). To their credit, Millennials have been a huge boon to Major League Soccer. When you hear potential owners or the league talk about a city having the “right demographic” for soccer, that is just coded language for a town with a large Millennial population. Orlando and Atlanta certainly fit that mold, leading to their entry into MLS.

The Millennial generation has grown up with an access to soccer dreamed about by past generations of passionate fans. Internet connectivity, social media, and smart phones mean streaming games, highlights, news, and discussion about teams and players. Soccer jerseys are ubiquitous on college campuses and anywhere selling avocado toast. It is safe to say the reason soccer is what it is in America right now has everything to do with the embrace it has gotten from the Millennial generation.

Without taking credit away from Baby Boomers or Millennials, there is an unsung hero in the American soccer narrative. Generation X, my generation, is the bridge between these two important soccer generations. In many ways, we were the keepers of the flame that extinguished between the fall of the NASL and the 1994 FIFA World Cup that was hosted in the United States, leading to Major League Soccer. Generation X was the core of the youth soccer boom in the 1980s. The American Youth Soccer Organization began in 1964 with 135 members on nine teams. By 1987, that number was over 300,000 on 21,500 teams. While this made Generation X the youth soccer generation, it seems appropriate to credit our Baby Boomer parents for their foresight in seeing the game as a great one to teach young people.

Before the age of about 7, I didn’t have a lot of opinions about soccer and could have played just about anything. That was until my dad — himself a football, baseball, and basketball star in high school — and my mom — a competitive swimmer — decided my brother and I would play soccer. They would both end up learning the game enough to coach our teams as well. Once we played, it was the only sport we ever competed in.

If Generation X members didn’t drive themselves to soccer practice, they did fall in love with the game once they got there. It was hard to be a soccer fan in those days. There were no professionals to look up to. We watched semi-pro teams, including two variations of the original Orlando Lions, but it was hard to aspire to semi-pro I have to admit — players my dad always jokingly reminded me were probably part-time plumbers on the side.

John Harkes, Cobi Jones, and Alexi Lalas eventually blazed the trail for Americans in Europe, but that was in the 1990s and still not covered in the United States. As a matter of fact, soccer was hard to follow in the U.S. You could count on World Cup qualifiers and some (but never all) of the World Cup games being shown on ESPN or Univision. Sometimes a European league game would appear magically, and thoroughly out of a seasonal context, at random times. But, there wasn’t the massive internet or extensive soccer specific cable channels that exist today. Europe and professional soccer were always very far away.

Generation X did have two things going for it — two things that kept the seed of soccer firmly planted in the ground for the Millennial generation to nurture in their turn. First, we loved playing and we were a generation that still played outside. We played a lot of soccer in the street, in the park, and on the fields. We played anywhere and we played all day.

Second, when we couldn’t play anymore, we played early versions of soccer games on our Ataris and our Commodore 64s. While these early games are nearly comical now in comparison to the latest FIFA game on a PS4 or Xbox, they did allow young American fans to learn about the wider world of soccer. Of course, the launch of EA Sports FIFA International Soccer in 1993 changed everything and took the exposure of the game to a whole new level for Generation Xers.

As we think about soccer generationally, we can never take the credit away from both the Baby Boomers for embracing the massive 1970s wave of NASL soccer or the Millennial generation fueling the modern game. At the same time, save a thought for Generation X, which kept the game alive in the United States long enough for there to be a revival. When I take my seat in a purpose-built downtown stadium in the midst of a purple sea of Orlando City fans, I’m often reminded of just how far we’ve come and I’m humbled to think how much has changed in my lifetime.